“Ethnically Indian, brought up in Dubai and most fluent in English, I have always struggled to locate where I am from. In reality, I am the product of centuries of conflict. For me, studying international relations is studying my own identity.” I cannot help but suspect that this somewhat pretentious (and gaudily poeticized) description of my ongoing identity crisis played a significant role in my being called for interview at Cambridge. Now that I am here, it feels only right to complete this story.
My name is Munira. It is an Arabic name, meaning luminous light; light that is perceived by the eye, rather than having energy of its own. I was born in India to a small, but highly prosperous, Muslim community. Although India is a land containing a multitude of converging cultures and classes, my community existed in a little bubble; with our own rules of culture, language and religion. When I was three, my family moved to the United Arab Emirates. Now growing up in a country where 9 in 10 people are immigrants, I rapidly began to detach from the bubble of my community. The world is strange when you cannot relate to your own family - when their language feels foreign to you, but no foreign language feels like your own.
When I was 10, I began calling myself Rosemary. The name ‘Rosemary’ means “dew of the sea”, although I did not know this then. Rachel Rostad says that when you name a child it’s a prayer for everything you want them to be. When I named myself Rosemary, it was a prayer for everything I wanted to be – stereotypically English. I had fallen in love with reading and liked to think of myself as a prodigy, like Matilda – but Matilda was English. And so I carved out an identity for myself, pretending on the internet to be a white girl from a white family while conveniently forgetting the Indian, the Muslim and the Arab. The name ‘Rosemary’ never stuck; quite the opposite, it became an object of ridicule. By age 12, reading an English name in a book or listening to music sung in English became distasteful to me. I set off, once again, in search of new costume, a new identity to wear.
At age 12, at one giddy sleepover, my best friend at the time showed me a K-pop music video – Gee by Girls Generation. I was mesmerized. And so, the next name I gave myself was Sung Haneul. I chose Sung as my surname because I was in love with a K-pop idol with the name and was convinced that I would marry him. Haneul means Sky. I chose it because English speakers found it hard to pronounce. For the next many years, I occasionally told strangers that I was half Korean. In year 9, I began studying the language and slowly it sat on my tongue, as close to me as the language of my family. This name, too, did not stick. But the Korean language became my own.
I had grown up with a nanny, as is the custom in Dubai. She belonged to a small village in India and had left her daughter, who is exactly my age, behind with an uncle. When we were 13, both of us got our period. While I tried to hide my newly found womanhood from everyone, my nanny announced that her daughter was getting married. And surely enough, in a few months, my peer had become the wife to a boy only 2 years older. For the first time, the facades of identity I had built for myself came crashing down. I began to feel the overwhelming task of privilege and the stifling realization of what it meant to be woman. I was not a White girl, nor a Korean one. I was an Indian, Muslim woman growing up in the Arab world. Like the UAE, I was in a state surrounded by perpetual conflict and violence; yet somehow, like the UAE, I basked in the light of privilege.
Coming to terms with who I was was an arduous and unending process. At 16, I visited Korea for the first time. I did not pretend to be half Korean, as I would have in the past, but instead tried to embrace what it meant to be a foreigner. Shortly after, I visited India and worked at an NGO in a slum near where I was born. Here, I did not pretend to be a foreigner but instead tired to embrace what it meant to be Indian. I did not fully succeed at either endeavor. When I returned home to Dubai, I was neither local nor foreigner and felt, for once, like myself.
Dubai is a peculiar place. Just when I decided to accept it as my home, it kicked me out. The law of the UAE is unusual in that it does not grant anyone except those who ethnically belong to the country citizenship or residency. In other words, it doesn’t matter if you were born there – they can kick you out whenever. And so they did. In a surprise turn of events and with a few days of notice, my family ended up, with 6 suitcases carrying 15 years of our lives, in India. For days, I cried for having left my home; my friends, my things, my places. Once again, I felt like I had lost an identity. With Dubai, I had lost who I was.
But I had one form of respite; my offer from Cambridge. In a few months, I would be off. In a new place, ready to carve a new self. In Cambridge, I see people stick with their own kind. It makes sense; being with people who share some part of your identity helps one develop a sense of belonging in a place that is unfamiliar. I do not have a single person to share my identity with. And I’m okay with that. Being in Cambridge and knowing that I do not have a home outside of it, I have come to love this little city already. It has taught me that I do not need to belong to a box; I do not need a façade of identity or another make believe name. I am Munira; luminous light. From now on, instead of searching for my self, I want to take what the world gives me and, maybe someday, become someone. Perhaps that is the nature of identity; it is light that is perceived by your eyes, and not something with energy of its own.
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